Strict liability and absolute liability

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Generally, when a person commits any wrong while performing his/her duty due to negligence or failure to perform his duty then he is liable to compensate for the loss or damage that occurred. Without liability, there will be no uniformity for humans. Usually, liability in law arises where someone is negligent or intentionally causes damage to another. These are all about fault-based liabilities if you do wrong there will be a liability on you. Have u heard about no-fault liabilities? The law of torts deals with the no-fault liabilities. Firstly, a tort means a wrongful act committed by a person, causing injury or damage to another, thereby the injured institutes an action in civil court for a remedy viz., unliquidated damages or injunction or restitution of property or other available relief. Shortly a tort means a twisted or crooked act. Some of the no-fault liabilities in torts are strict liability, absolute liability, vicarious liability, etc., lets us discuss strict liability and absolute in detail.

STRICT LIABILITY 

 The rule of strict liability was evolved in the year 1868 in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher. There are certain circumstances where the person is made liable without any fault on his part, this is called the rule of strict liability.

In the doctrine of strict liability, the burden of proof vests on the defendant. If the negligence on the part of the defendant is proved then he is liable. If the negligence on the part of the defendant is not proved then he is not liable. In certain circumstances, if there is no negligence on the part of the defendant then also, he is liable. Strict liability is that liability in respect of which the defendant is held liable in tort, although there is no negligence on his part is called strict liability. If the defendant is part of liability without providing him an opportunity to plead any defense, such liability is called absolute liability.

Black burn j. evolved the above rule based on the underlying principles ‘sic utere tuo ut alienum non-leads which means ‘everyone must so use his own as not to damage another. This liability created in the case of Ryland’s vs. fletcher was termed as strict liability.  

Rylands vs… Fletcher (1868) L.R.3 H.L. 330

In this case, it was held that the defendant Ryland’s employed an independent contractor (qualified engineer) for the construction of a reservoir on his land for the supply of water to his mill. while constructing the reservoir, the workers found some old shafts and passages beneath the reservoir. They filled them with mud and completed the work negligently. When the reservoir got filled with water, it burst through the shafts and flooded the plaintiff coal mines on the adjoining land. In an action by the plaintiff, the defendant was held liable on the ground of strict liability.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS

The plaintiff in an action for strict liability has to prove the following conditions.

  • Dangerous thing
  • Escape and
  • Non – natural use
  1. Dangerous thing

                The plaintiff has to establish that the thing kept in the defendant’s land is a dangerous thing and is likely will do mischief, if it escapes. The nature of a dangerous thing may be a living or non-living thing or in the form of a liquid, solid or gaseous state. As such, this rule applies to water, gas, fire, noxious fumes, vibrations, etc., By taking a look at Ryland’s vs. fletcher case the reservoir is the dangerous thing.

  1. Escape

                 The plaintiff to be successful in an action for strict liability that the thing collected and kept in the defendants land is must be a dangerous one and escaped from the occupation and control of the defendant i.e. in the other words the dangerous thing should be escaped from the defendants land, escape from one place to another place within the defendants land is no escape. The plaintiff has to prove that the injury suffered or damage caused by the escape of the thing from the defendant’s land.

In the case of reading VS. LYONS & CO. LTD. (1947) AC 156 (HL), The plaintiff was employed in the defendant’s factory. when she was performing her duties, a shell exploded on the premises of the defendant’s land and she was injured. In an action, it was held that there was no escape of the thing, the shell exploded only in the premises of the defendant and it will not maintainable.

  1. Non-natural use

               The term natural is inherently vague. In the case of Ryland’s vs fletcher, the water collected in the reservoir in such a huge quantity was held to be non-natural use of land. Keeping water for ordinary purposes is a natural use. If it is stored in an extraordinary quantity it is a non-natural use.

In the case of Rickards v. Lothian[191 Ac 263]1, they defined the non-natural user in the following words:

‘There must be some special use bringing with it increased danger to others and must merely be the ordinary use of the land or such a use as is proper for the general of the community.’

Now, the question is whether storage of water in huge quantities in dams for irrigation purposes is a natural use or non-natural use?

This was explained by the supreme court in the following case:

State Of Punjab v.s M/S. Modern Cultivators, Air 1965 Sc 17 P.22: held, in the interest of the public that it is a natural use. If it is regarded as non-natural use it attracts strict liability and no government would come forward to construct the irrigation dams.

This view was followed by the A.P. government in K.Nagireddy And Others vs. Govt. Of A.P 1982 A.P. 119.

In this, the government constructed the dam across the stream for storing the water to be used for irrigation purposes. Due to heavy rainfall, the water could not pass speedily through the sluices in the dam and spread over the paddy field of the plaintiff. It was held by the court that there was no escape from water stored up. The complaint was that the dam stood in the way of speedy escape of the excess water that had been collected in the plaintiff paddy lands as a result of unusually heavy rains. Apart from this the court also held that was not the non-natural use of land in India.

Thus, it should be noted that a reservoir for irrigating purposes is considered as a ‘Natural use of land in India’.

In strict liability of the person is not absolute hence there are some defenses available for the defendant.

  1. ACT OF GOD OR VIS MAJOR

According to Lord Mansfield, the Act of God means something in opposition to the act of man. It is an act that cannot be foreseen n human activity and if it is foreseen also it cannot be prevented by human ability and skills. In simple words, the activity is not controlled by humans.

Ex: lightning, storming/extraordinary rainfall, etc.,

Here the question raised like the exception to strict liability is held available in the cases of death due to electrocution as a result of falling off high tension electric wire from its pole due to lightning strike or storm? 

Let us discuss with the help of the following case law,

In S.K. Shangrung Lamkang v. State Of Manipur[Air 2008 Sc 46], the Gauhati high court explained since the management of electricity supply is hazardous and inherently dangerous. When the harm is caused to the person on the account of the above-said activity, then the respondents will be held liable and they cannot make any exception from the rule of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. fletcher.

In this case, two persons died due to electrocution caused by falling off a high tension wire from its pole while they are passing through the road on a scooter. The respondents contended that the falling of the electric wire was due to a lightning storm resulting in the breaking of tension due to the insulator, not because of the negligence of the respondents.

Holding the respondents liable the court observed: “the possibility of falling off high tension electric wire from its pole as a result of  Strom or lighting should have been reasonably anticipated by the respondents and as such appropriate steps should have been taken by them so that no harm was caused, when touched the fallen electric wire”.the court said, in as much as they ought to have appreciated the possibility of the falling of the electric wire from its pole as a result of storm and lightning.

  1. PLAINTIFF’S FAULT

when there is fault on the part of the plaintiff, the defendant is held not liable.

In the case of Ponting vs. Noakes,(1894) 2 Qb 281, the plaintiff’s horse nibbled the leaves which were planted over the defendant’s land and it was died due to the leaves. The court said that it was the land of the defendant though it is dangerous but hasn’t escaped from its place. The horse itself went to the defendant’s land and chewed leaves. So here, the defendant is held not liable.

  1. MALICIOUS ACT OF STRANGER/THIRD PARTY

If the damages to the plaintiff were occurred by the act done by a stranger or third party. then the defendant is held not liable.

In Box vs. Jubb(1879), the reservoir of the defendant overflowed due to the act of a stranger and caused damage to the plaintiff. The defendant was held not liable.

  1. COMMON BENEFIT OR CONSENT OF PLAINTIFF 

Here,  if the defendant does an act with the consent of the plaintiff or for the common benefit. Then, the defendant is held not liable.

For instance, both of them kept a water tank which is necessary for both. If the tank overflowed and destroyed any of the fluids. In this action, neither of them was held liable. The same has happened in the Carstairs vs. Taylor case.  

  1. STATUTORY AUTHORITY

If any act is done under the authorization of power/law given by the government of the country or government of the state, if the defendant commits a tort in the discharge of a duty, he is not subject to liability in tort.

In the case of Green vs. Chelesa Water Works Co.(1894) 70 L.N 547, the defendant company had a statutory duty of continuous water supply. A main belonging on the company burst without negligence on the part of the defendants. Unfortunately, the plaintiff’s premises were flooded with water. The defendant company is held not liable. It becomes liable if there is negligence on the part of the defendant’s servant.

The application of strict liability rule in India: the rule in Rylands vs. fletcher with some modifications keeping in view the socio-economic conditions.

ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

The rule of absolute liability was evolved in 1868n in the case of Ryland vs. fletcher with some modifications. The rule of absolute liability applies without any limitation or exception and creates the person completely liable for any fault. The absolute liability has no defenses and there is no chance to escape from the liability. In simple words,

Absolute liability- liability irrespective of negligence on the part of the defendant without any defenses.

Strict liability- liability irrespective of negligence on the part of the defendant with defenses.

In India, the rule of absolute liability evolved in 19877 by P.N. Bhagwati in M.C. Mehta vs. Union Of India. There are two leading on the rule of absolute liability:

  1. Union Carbide Corporation vs. Union Of India (1986)2 Com.L.J.9(Us) – this case is popularly known as Bhopal Gas Disaster Case Or Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

  On the midnight of 2/3-12-1984, there was a leakage of poisonous gas(methyl isocyanate) from union carbide corporation India limited, located at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, which ios subsidiary off union carbide corporation, U.S.A. the government of India proclaimed an ordinance entitled “Bhopal gas leak disaster act, 1985” and filed behalf of the victims, a suit in U.S. district court,  New YORK. similarly, several petitions were filed also directed U.C.C. to pay five million dollars to the victims as immediate relief. The union of India preferred an appeal before the court of the united states of appeals for the second circuit and the same was dismissed.

Then, the union of India filed a suit in the dist. Court, claiming 3.3 billion u.s. dollars i.e. Rs.3,900 crore as compensation. The u.c.c. filed a revision petition which reduced the compensation from 350-250 crores. then the high court of Madhya Pradesh passed an interim order not to compromise or settle with any individual until further orders. later both the parties preferred appeals before the court on different issues.

The death rate increased from 20,000 to 35,455 in 2010. So many petitions were filed. the government gave three options on the payment of additional compensation- that is over and above the 470 million ordered in 1989.so many additional crores were added and taxes were added. The government says it has filed the petition as the ‘parent’ of the victims. It said the petition is an exercise of not only its statutory duty under the Bhopal gas leak disaster act,1985 to represent the interest of the victims, but also constitutional duty to ensure that adequate compensation is paid by the companies for the damage caused to the country.

On 23-0-2012, the government of India in its cabinet meeting approved Rs.1,500 crores towards compensation for Bhopal gas victims Rs.10 lakhs each.

  1. M.C. Mehta And Another vs. Shri Ram Foods And Fertilizer Industries And Others, Air 1987 Sc 965– this case is also called Oleum Gas Leak Case.

When the matter was pending before the supreme court, another gas disaster took place from Shri Ram Foods and Fertilizer industries, Delhi on 4th and 6th December 1985. One advocate died and several others were injured. M.C. Mehta, a legal petitioner, the supreme court filed a “public interest litigation” petition under art.32 of the constitution. The supreme court through P.N. Bhagwati, C.J. keeping the mind the one year back great disaster of Bhopal, evolved a new rule “absolute liability” in preference to the 1868 rule of strict liability.

DECISION: The supreme court(five benches) vide its order dt.14-2-1989 directed U.C.C. to pay 470 Million U.S. dollars (equivalent to Rs. 750 crores approximately) towards compensation to the victims as a full and final settlement in satisfaction of all the past, present and future claims and the same were accepted by both the parties (i.e. U.C.C. and union of India). The entire amount had to be and was paid by 

March 31, 1989. The court by exercising its extraordinary jurisdiction quashed all civil, criminal, or contempt of court, etc. against the U.C.C. the court also stressed the need to evolve a national policy to protect national interests from such ultra-hazardous pursuits of economic giants.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN STRICT LIABILITY AND ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

  • The rule of strict liability evolved in the case of Rylands vs. fletcher with some defenses
  • And the absolute liability from the same case but has no defenses.
  • The absolute liability applies to only enterprises which perform hazardous and harmful activities and will be made the defendant liable. All the other activities fall under strict liability.
  • In the strict liability, escape of the dangerous thing from the premises of the defendant was the essential element. Whereas in absolute liability no such element is essential.
  • Strict liability applies only when there is non-natural use of the land. whereas absolute liability applies when there are non-natural and natural uses of land.

Author

  • II year student pursuing B.A.LL.B from Dr. Ambedkar Global Law Institute, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. ( Coordinator at Voice of barristers)

Ms. Thanuja A

II year student pursuing B.A.LL.B from Dr. Ambedkar Global Law Institute, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. ( Coordinator at Voice of barristers)

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